This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, made him an enormously successful popular author when he was only twenty-three years old. The combination of romanticism and realism, mingled with a fresh and—for the time—sometimes startling depiction of college life, caught the attention of the reading public and made the novel representative of an entire generation.
This Side of Paradise is loose and episodic, a collection of vivid scenes which do not fuse into a well-structured novel. It is divided into two sections: “The Romantic Egotist” (the title of the novel’s first draft) and “The Education of a Personage.”
The first takes Amory Blame from his childhood through his years at Princeton University and concerns his intellectual and moral development.
Convinced that he has a great, if obscure, destiny, Amory is greatly influenced by a Catholic priest, Father Darcy, who awakens him to the reality and power of evil. Darcy is based upon Father Sigourney Fay, who exerted a comparable influence on Fitzgerald. In the novel, this moral and spiritual education is dramatized by incidents that appear supernatural, as when Amory is pursued by a diabolic figure through the streets of New York. Perhaps a remnant of Father Fay’s moralism, the sense of sin and the power of sex are mixed in Amory’s mind in an inextricable, if often confusing fashion.
The second section is restricted to one year, 1919, and concentrates on Amory’s character development, which it traces by following his adventures after service in World War I. As Fitzgerald had no experience of combat, he wisely omitted any actual description of Amory in the conflict. In book 2, Amory’s courtship of Rosalind Connage is ended after the sudden loss of his family fortune. Having weathered this traumatic event, Amory undergoes another supernatural experience, involving the death of Father Darcy and again related to his confused feelings about sex, sin, and morality. Yet the death of Father Darcy frees Amory, in a sense, and at the end of the novel he gazes on the lights of Princeton and vows to begin his real search for his unknown but surely glorious destiny.
Readers responded to several different aspects of This Side of Paradise. It was one of the first novels to use the college setting in a realistic way—as opposed to the simplistic “Dink Stover at Yale” genre—and, although later generations were to see it as sentimental, even naïve, Fitzgerald’s contemporaries were treated to a fresh and innovative point of view concerning the young. His scenes of college life, enticing to younger readers, were even thought shocking by some—including the president of Princeton, John Grier Hibben, who wrote Fitzgerald an aggrieved letter.
Hibben was troubled that This Side of Paradise seemed to emphasize the facile and superficial aspects of Princeton life. On the other hand, it should be noted that Fitzgerald’s novel is highly concerned with the development of Amory Blame’s intellect. A recurrent theme in This Side of Paradise is the importance of reading in forming character: One critic has counted sixty-four book titles and the names of ninety-eight authors in the novel. In this concern with its hero’s intellectual growth, This Side of Paradise is very similar to another influential novel of the period, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Both books startled many by their blend of the mental and physical desires of their protagonists, including what was, for the times, a frank approach to sexual awakening.
Also startling to many readers, long accustomed to conventional portraits of women, were the manners and actions of Fitzgerald’s women characters. Such young women as Eleanor Savage, a heedless and self-indulgent romantic, for example, were far removed from conventional morality. Actually, this realistic aspect of the novel fit quite well with the highly moral, even religious, sentiments of Amory Blame concerning sex, by underscoring...
(The entire section is 2,820 words.)